February 2, 2015

Exponential Growth, Unexpected Challenges: How Teach for America Grew in Scale and Impact

By Sara Mead | Carolyn Chuong | Caroline Goodson

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Over the past 15 years, Teach For America has grown to a scale, and at a pace, that is virtually unprecedented in education and the domestic nonprofit sector more generally. From 2000 to 2014, the number of Teach for America corps members rose nearly tenfold, the number of alumni increased even more rapidly, and the organization expanded from a handful of communities to 50 cities and rural areas nationally. In the process, it became both the nation’s largest source of new teachers and the largest single recipient of philanthropic funding for K-12 education. Even as it grew, however, Teach For America also sought to increase the impact of its corps members and alumni by improving its approach to corps member recruitment, selection, preparation, and support, and by supporting alumni to take on increased leadership in education.

The strategies Teach For America used to both grow in scale and improve in quality offer numerous lessons for other education organizations seeking to increase their impact on education, as well as for policymakers, funders, and nonprofits outside of education.

In a new report, Bellwether’s Sara Mead, Carolyn Chuong, and Caroline Goodson describe the history of Teach For America’s growth over the past 15 years, the challenges and opportunities it has faced, the strategies it has adopted in response to those challenges and opportunities, and the lessons it has learned.  This report draws from extensive analysis of hundreds of internal Teach For America documents and data from the past 15 years, interviews with more than 40 current and former Teach For America staff members and stakeholders, and Bellwether’s own experience advising scaling education organizations. Although Bellwether had unprecedented access to Teach For America historical materials and staff, the report is a fully independent presentation of Bellwether’s analysis and conclusions.

The report draws several types of lessons from Teach For America’s experience, including:

  • Specific tactical lessons and strategies for other scaling organizations seeking to address major growth challenges, including: maintaining culture while growing, cultivating and engaging a diverse staff, building a sustainable funding approach, structuring national and regional teams, and setting and measuring progress towards goals
  • Lessons for funders seeking to invest in scaling the impact of effective education models
  • Lessons for policymakers seeking to scale effective education models and improve teacher quality

In addition to these concrete lessons for specific audiences, the report also identifies several broad principles related to scaling effective organizations:

  • A strong Theory of Change is the foundation for scaling impact. Nothing has been more important to Teach For America’s growth than the power and stability of its Theory of Change. Having a clear, powerful Theory of Change focused Teach For America’s work, helped Teach For America present a compelling case to funders and partners, and informed major decisions at every step in its growth.  
  • Growth doesn’t have to mean a sacrifice in quality, but retaining quality while growing requires a relentless focus on improvement. Conventional wisdom holds that scaling an educational model or organization necessarily leads to reductions in quality or fidelity. Teach For America’s experience contradicts that assumption. In fact, growth has enabled Teach For America to improve quality by attracting additional resources and talent and building internal systems and capacity. But this positive relationship between growth and quality was hardly automatic. Teach For America was able to maintain and improve quality while growing because its leadership and staff intentionally prioritized improving quality, encouraging data-driven, continuous improvement across all elements of its programs.
  • Maintain a focus on people and culture while growing. The urgency to improve education for disadvantaged children can make focusing on issues like staff culture or lifestyle sustainability feel self-indulgent. But Teach For America’s experience illustrates that achieving long-term impact at scale requires concerted attention to both organizational culture and staff well-being and sustainability—particularly in a rapidly scaling organization.

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